Ear­li­er this week, Helene Weck­er wrote about Dork­dom and writ­ing while Jew­ish. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Yes­ter­day I wrote that my nov­el, The Golem and the Jin­ni, is pret­ty darn Jew­ish.” In truth, that’s only half the sto­ry. There are two cul­tures in my nov­el, set in New York at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry: the Jews of the Low­er East Side, and the Syr­i­an immi­grants who lived in what’s now New York’s Finan­cial district.

When I start­ed writ­ing this book, I was incred­i­bly daunt­ed at the idea of writ­ing about a cul­ture that was­n’t my own. At a guess, I know slight­ly more about Syr­i­an cul­ture than your aver­age Amer­i­can Jew: my hus­band is Arab Amer­i­can, so I mar­ried into the knowl­edge, as it were. But it’s one thing to know the foods and the hol­i­days and the eti­quette, and to learn how to say salaam aleikum and shukran and insh’al­lah when the cousins vis­it. It’s quite anoth­er to cre­ate fic­tion­al char­ac­ters who belong to that cul­ture, hope­ful­ly true to life and free of gen­er­al­iza­tions. I real­ly, real­ly did­n’t want any­one to read my book and cringe, like a British per­son watch­ing Dick Van Dyke in Mary Pop­pins.

And as soon as I start­ed to research, it became all too clear just how lit­tle I knew. The res­i­dents of Lit­tle Syr­ia,” as it was called, weren’t Mus­lim but Chris­t­ian, most­ly Maronite Catholic and East­ern Ortho­dox from what’s now Lebanon. I’d always been flum­moxed by the var­i­ous and sub­tle dif­fer­ences between Chris­tian­i­ties, and now I felt even more daunt­ed. I tried to plug my igno­rance with books and infor­ma­tion­al web­sites, and often end­ed up more con­fused than when I start­ed. I went so far as to order a back issue of a Catholic mag­a­zine that had an arti­cle I want­ed to read. Before long they’d giv­en my name to every Catholic mail­ing list in Amer­i­ca. One char­i­ty even mailed me a rosary. I still have it, hid­den in the back of my sock draw­er, as though from God’s pry­ing eyes. How the hell do you throw out a rosary?

After a while I’d read enough to feel like I could start writ­ing. It was impor­tant to me that the Jew­ish and Syr­i­an sec­tions of the book be rough­ly equal: in length, in weight, in the impor­tance of the char­ac­ters. I did­n’t want one side of the book to be mere­ly a cat­a­lyst or boost­er for the oth­er, like the stal­wart friend in a roman­tic com­e­dy. This led to a num­ber of inter­est­ing deci­sions. After some back and forth, I decid­ed not to use any Yid­dish say­ings in the book. If I could­n’t say it in Ara­bic, then I would­n’t say it in Yid­dish either. (I had a cou­ple of salaam aleikums in there before some­one told me that only Mus­lims say it, not Arab Chris­tians — exact­ly the sort of mis­take I was look­ing to avoid.) I tried to use reli­gious and cul­tur­al details spar­ing­ly, because a lit­tle goes a long way, and I want­ed to keep my blun­der oppor­tu­ni­ties to a minimum.

And frankly, my fears weren’t con­fined to the Arab-Amer­i­can half of the book. I grew up Reform, but most of the Jew­ish char­ac­ters in my book are Ortho­dox, which some­times feels to me like a dif­fer­ent reli­gion entire­ly. It did help, a lit­tle per­verse­ly, that I’d often find mul­ti­ple and con­flict­ing answers to a ques­tion. Two Jews, three opin­ions, as the say­ing goes, and the same thing hap­pened when I’d try to pin down an Arab Chris­t­ian detail. We Jews don’t exact­ly have a monop­oly on that par­tic­u­lar trait.

Even­tu­al­ly I decid­ed not to obsess so much over the impos­si­bil­i­ty of tru­ly know­ing some­thing that I myself haven’t lived. The only oth­er option would be to wor­ry myself to a stand­still — and that was one thing I was­n’t will­ing to do. By its very nature, writ­ing a book is an act of hubris. Here are my ideas, you say, and they’re worth your mon­ey, time, and atten­tion! But it’s also a leap of faith: trust your inten­tions and stay true to the sto­ry, and the effort will be worth it. I’ll leave it up to my read­ers to decide whether or not I’ve succeeded.

Read more about Helene Weck­er here.

The Golem and the Jin­ni was award­ed the Mythopoe­ic Award, the VCU Cabell Award, and the Har­ald U. Rib­alow Prize, and was nom­i­nat­ed for a Neb­u­la and World Fan­ta­sy Awards. Her work has appeared in Joy­land, Cata­ma­ran, and in the anthol­o­gy The Djinn Falls in Love and Oth­er Sto­ries. She lives in the San Fran­cis­co Bay area with her family.